Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘Just this Side of Byzantium: Dandelion Wine’

I’m not an expert in Byzantine-style of writing, but from what little I gather, it’s a very ornate style of writing. It sounds like a style very different from Ray Bradbury’s. Some have asked me how I’d describe Mr. Bradbury’s style, and, again, I think Stephen King said it best in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Everything’s green and wondrous and seen through a lens of nostalgia.

That being said…

When I was younger and an even worse writer than I am now, I often would try to write fiction using strict outlines. I think it came from the times I’d occasionally get 15 minutes at church to preach miniature sermons. I’d take a story idea, outline it and then write according to the outline. Whenever possible, I’d employ alliteration.

Don’t misunderstand–there’s nothing wrong with writing by outlines. If you’re a very organized person, perhaps it’s the best way to go. In many ways (especially in my journalism and freelance writing careers) I still like to do that as a way to have a starting point that points towards a faint, distant, illuminated end of the tunnel. But there are many times when writing fiction where it’s sometimes best to go with the flow and write as the spirit moves you. Let your imagination guide you.

Mr. Bradbury notes that even at an early age his preferred style of writing was word asociation. Take a story, write down as many words that come to mind and then write the story based on the word list. Before this, he used to “beat, pummel and thrash” an idea into existence. He believes that word association allows you to write faster as the ideas flow much better.

To illustrate this, he explains the term “Dandelion Wine”, which he would use in a collection of his published short stories. Dandelions sprout in the spring (as they will very soon do here in Michigan), and each dandelion represents a fascinating story idea. As for the wine, oenophiles tell us that the best wine is properly aged. Take a story idea and allow it to age, breathe and build up color, aroma and flavor in a cask and then in a bottleĀ and soon you have a story that people will pay good money to read.

That gives me hope, when you consider the unpublished short stories I have that I hope someday will see the light of day: Why Are You Here So Soon? (a young man commits suicide out of despair, gets to heaven and sees how God could’ve richly used him had he not ended his life on a lark); God’s Final Call (a young man raised in a Baptist church knows he’s not really saved and has a decision to make: become a Christian or ignore God one last time); Dear Billy, Sincerely, Billy (a time travel story involving bullies, new opportunities and receiving a letter from yourself in the not-so-near past). Perhaps these dandelions will someday soon turn into very fine wines.

Mr. Bradbury notes how some critics who, aware of his humble childhood and some of the perceived ugliness of that area of Illinois (such as the trains, boxcars and smell of coal) wonder how he could convey excitement about these. It’s all about perception, he reasons. A carnival or railyard deemed ugly by a dignified, stuffy Byzantine person is, to a Midwest boy who grew up in the 1930s a paradise.

To Bradbury, his humble surroundings were Byzantium: a wonderous, exotic, beautiful place very ornate and rich to him.

Finally, Mr. Bradbury talks about the pear-shaped, red, white and blue-striped paper balloons filled with hot air during 1925 Fourth of July. They floated and seemed to have a wonderful, mysterious life of their own. I wonder if these balloons were the inspiration for his short story The Fire Balloons (which can be found in his book The Illustrated Man).

Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based writer who blogs, works in journalism, writes fiction and essays. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

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Ray Bradbury’s ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ chapter ‘How to Feed and Keep a Muse’

For those of us who are writers, the description of a muse can be as diverse as how world cultures and religions define God(s). For some, a muse is an English teacher with some crisp British accent admonishing us to not waste time but to get down to business and to write. Others think of a muse as a gentle encourager. (“Come on, you don’t really need to watch another rerun of Frasier, do you? Hmmmm?”). For those who like to write stories delving into seedy or sassy subjects, perhaps their muse is some sort of dominatrix who cracks the whip anytime they’re not diligently putting words on paper. (“Get writing! WOO-PSSSSSSH! Now!!!)

The muse’s job is simple: to encourage us to write and to inspire us to write. In some cases, such as looming deadlines or story ideas that began to fade or grow too stale if neglected too long, to order us to write.

No, this Papermate Dynagrip isn’t my muse, but it is my favorite of the non-click Papermate pens.

Mr. Bradbury talks about muses and how to feed and keep them. It’s a very difficult task. His view of a muse is of some painfully shy Greek goddess. Hold her too tight, and she’s gone. Hold her too loosely and she zooms away. A writer needs a happy balance.

He believes it’s a mistake for a writer to focus excessive attention on the muse themselves, comparing a muse to specks in an eye membrane that can cause vision to become a little cloudy. Instead, a person should focus on the big picture and see things clearly.

How does one feed a muse? Mr. B suggests doing things that should come across seasoned writers as very obvious: read as much as possible; write as often as you can (at least 1,000 words of fiction writing a day). Besides these two things, become a sharp observer of the world. Take in sights, smells, sounds, tastes, touches. Use these to become a better writer and to make your writing come alive.

We have originality, Mr. Bradbury reminds us. No two people see the same event in exactly the same way. I suspect this applies even to identical twins to a strong extent.

When we write, our muse wants us to write in passion and in truth. Mr. B recalls his father’s stories of traveling in Arizona (back when it was a U.S. territory) and Minnesota and how his dad spoke truthfully and passionately. It really makes me think that when creating a story character, you should do your best to describe the world from their viewpoint–even if you normally would disagree with that person. Show their drive and their determination. And when you describe a story, do so in a determined way that gives the reader (who may have never traveled to that location) a great idea of what it’s like.

In short, Mr. Bradbury says, the muse is a fantastic storehouse of our complete being where we store our memories, interests, observations, interactions–all the tools we need to become a great writer.

Furthermore, he suggests these also to feed a muse:

1) Read poetry daily. In fact, some of Mr. Bradbury’s stories come from poetry he’s read. I remember the short story The Exiles, published in The Illustrated Man, begins with witches reciting a poem as they brewed a concoction inside a cauldron.

2) Read books of essays. We presume this would be books beside the one I’m currently blogging about. Mr. B believes these can help the sense of smell and hearing when writing.

3) Novels, short stories

4) Comics

These are all designed to help you learn the tools you’ll need to become a good writer.

Mr. B also says a person should: “Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime;

“Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from waht you are–the material within you which makes you individual, and therefore indispensible to others.”

Furthermore, feeding a muse means taking long walks at night in the city or town, or walks in the country at day and long walks through libraries and bookstores.

Mr. Bradbury believes that writing a thousand words daily will help your muse to take shape and will exercise your creativity and storytelling muscles. By doing this, by living well, and practicing close observation, you will have fed your muse well. Just as an athlete frequently exercises to stay in shape, a writer must write frequently.

Finally, what’s my idea of a muse? At this stage of life, she looks a lot like my wife, Jennifer, and she gently but firmly encourages me that getting published as a writer helps pay the bills and is a step closer to my dream job: fiction writer.

Richard Zowie’s been a writer for 10 years and has several unpublished fiction short stories. Post comments here or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.